Thomson Smillie's Opera Explained series warmly enfolds listeners into a musical world that they might have previously considered elitist. In Smillie's esteemed opinion, opera is inviting, not intimidating, and in this episode he succeeds in making The Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner accessible to a wider audience. This guided listening experience performed by the distinguished actor David Timson opens with an excerpt from Wagner's 1843 opera and goes on to discuss the composer's idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (a synthesis of poetic, visual, musical, and dramatic arts), his use of leitmotifs, his controversial life, and the revolution he accomplished in opera. Timson's artful narration deepens a listener's understanding not only of The Flying Dutchman, but of music in general.
The Flying Dutchman is the perfect opera with which to approach the operatic mountain that is Richard Wagner. It is short, has a great story (the legend of the Dutch captain doomed to sail forever unless redeemed through love), and the striking score has many pre-echoes of Wagner's later great music dramas. It contains wonderful tunes in its arias, ensembles, and big choruses, and the orchestral writing - from the gale that blows out of the Overture to the final theme of "Redemption through Love" - will "blow you away".
These "wonderful tunes" are enriched by a lively explanation of their context. From the opera's dramatic opening, which reflects Wagner's own nautical experiences as he fled from creditors and the law, we see how it contains many of the hall-marks, many of the foot-prints, of his later, greater works. And we find out why The Flying Dutchman was such a blazing triumph for this most controversial and Romantic of composers.
PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your My Library section along with the audio.
The first twenty or so minutes are spent on a whirlwind review of Wagner's operas and personality, which hardly seems necessary in a short selection such as this. Only after that do we begin with this opera itself, which Smillie says is the perfect introduction to Wagner's work because it contains "all of the elements of his mature genius, but on a human scale."
The plot is quite simple by Wagnerian standards. A sea captain, cursed to sail the seas for all eternity, is given the possibility of reprieve. Every seven years the waves will send him back to shore. While there, if he can find a woman to be a true and faithful wife to him, he will be released from his curse. (One of Wagner's recurring themes finds its origin in this work: redemption through love).
The author discusses each leitmotif, as well as the orchestration, theme, and resolution of the plot. Overall, a good introduction.
David Timson is always a wonderful narrator. (I could listen to him read out a tax return and be enraptured). Five stars for his performance.
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